Trip brings piano technician in tune with past

By Julia Wells, Globe Correspondent, Boston Sunday Globe, 02/15/98

WEST TISBURY - The black and white photograph captures three young boys standing in front of a fireplace - sport coats buttoned, hair plastered into place, corny smiles for the camera.

David Stanwood props the picture on the table in the sunny kitchen of his West Tisbury farmhouse. For a minute he is lost in memory.

It was February 1958, and Stanwood was 7 years old, vacationing in Miami with his family. ''My father said, `Let's go over to Havana for the day,''' Stanwood recalls. They visited the Havana Country Club, and during the visit a picture was taken of David and his two brothers in the formal reception room at the club. Behind them, over the mantel, hung a portrait of Frederick Snare, their great-grandfather.

In the early 1900s Snare founded an engineering company that helped build Cuba's infrastructure. The company built bridges, schools, and the National Baseball Stadium in Havana.

Snare, who loved to play golf, also founded the Havana Country Club in 1911 and was its president until his death in 1946.

Stanwood remembers the day of the visit and how, as the youngest brother, he was the one who had to wear a ''stupid'' bow tie.

A year later, the Cuban revolution occurred and the Stanwoods lost all touch with the island. ''My whole life I have had this picture - but we always thought the place was probably gone after the revolution,'' Stanwood says.

In July 1996, Stanwood, an internationally acclaimed piano technician who lives on Martha's Vineyard, attended the annual Institute of Piano Technicians Guild meeting in Orlando, Fla. While there, he met Benjamin Treuhaft. Treuhaft told Stanwood about a mission he had begun to take pianos and piano technicians into Cuba.

''It was kind of a mission of mercy, as he described it,'' Stanwood says. During the conversation Stanwood told Treuhaft that his great-grandfather had founded the Havana Country Club.

''He just screamed and said, `That is where we work!' He said, `You have to come.'''

In January, Stanwood and his wife, Eleanor, traveled to Havana with 18 piano technicians from all over North America. With special visas from both the US Treasury Department and the Cuban Ministry of Culture, the group's mission was to work with Cubans on pianos for 10 days.

They brought 25 donated pianos, medical supplies, and 13 bicycles. Officially they were called the Piano Tuners' Brigade, but at the outset Eleanor Stanwood came up with another nickname: the Piano Peace Corps.

Stanwood admits that the mission was the second reason he wanted to go to Cuba. ''Deep down inside me the real reason I wanted to go was to find out what happened to the country club, to the painting of my great-grandfather,'' he says.

The morning after the group arrived, they walked to the country club and gathered in front of the fireplace for the opening reception - the same fireplace where Stanwood was photographed 40 years ago.

''I didn't say anything. I just took the picture out and put it on the mantel,'' he smiles.

The Stanwoods were amazed to find that the country club was unchanged; the furniture was the same, the same two urns stood on the mantel, the same barometer hung on the wall near the fireplace. Like so much of Havana, the room had been frozen in time.

The only thing missing was the portrait of Frederick Snare, which the Stanwoods learned had been taken to the Havana Museum of Fine Arts for safekeeping after the revolution.

''All these years we always thought they had probably trashed the place. I imagined it had been burned in the name of the revolution, my grandfather's portrait slashed and destroyed as a symbol of capitalism,'' Stanwood says.

Instead they found that after the revolution the country club had been turned into Cuba's first school of the arts, the Instituto Superior de Arte. It is where the country's most talented artists come to study music, sculpture, painting, dance and theater.

''Everywhere we went, we heard music,'' Stanwood says.

Stanwood, whose work takes him all over the world, was struck by the quality of the music he heard. ''I have been on the campuses of music schools many, many times - and what was really different here is you could stop at any moment and listen to a level of music that was really extraordinary. It is the expression, the heart, you can feel the Cuban people, you feel their embrace in their music.''

The Stanwoods say traveling to Cuba was like traveling back in time. All the automobiles are from the 1950s, there are no high-rise buildings, and everywhere people walk and ride bicycles. ''It seems like time stopped in 1959,'' says Eleanor Stanwood.

The Stanwoods say the Cuban people have little money and few material possessions, their buildings are crumbling, but they are rich in spirit and culture.

''The revolution is a very clear presence in the minds and hearts of the people,'' says Eleanor Stanwood. ''You are not free, there is no privacy. And yet they are very open, very aware of each other. Everyone looks you in the eye and you feel completely safe, even on the darkest street at night with complete strangers.''

''The success story in Cuba is the quality of their culture - it is something they are doing right,'' David Stanwood says.

The piano technicians did most of their work in the same room where Stanwood was photographed with his brothers 40 years ago.

Stanwood said there are thousands of pianos in Cuba but only a handful of technicians trained to work on them. Many of the pianos are in terrible condition and there is a widespread problem with termites.

The Stanwoods plan to return to Cuba next year with the Piano Peace Corps; this time they plan to stay for a month and take their two teenage children. The group hopes to establish a school at the institute to train piano technicians with the help of foundation money from the United States.

Stanwood has one other goal - to retrieve the portrait of his great-grandfather from the museum and hang it over the mantel again in the reception room of the old country club.

''That they chose the country club to make it an institute of the arts was the finest tribute to the spirit of my grandfather,'' he says.

By Julia Wells, Globe Correspondent, Boston Sunday Globe,

This story ran on page B07 of the Boston Globe on 02/15/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.